The next year will undoubtedly mean change for Racine County and it is already happening with Foxconn, an electronics manufacturer that will be building one of the largest manufacturing campuses in the country.
I often get asked what I think about Foxconn and the person asking usually follows up with: Do you think it’s really going to happen?
And my reply: Yes, it’s really happening. An unspoken sarcastic quip usually gets stifled in my head as I remind myself, we’ve been let down before. I know it’s hard to believe that something like this could happen here, but it is. We have questions, fears, and concerns. But many are truly excited to see this happen.
The problem is that we’re not even fully aware of what “it” is yet because this massive project was largely decided — like it or not — before the local folks knew what was happening. From a public policy and transparency standpoint, this is an unfortunate situation. But we are where we are and that will undoubtedly bring challenges and opportunities.
Real estate frenzy
The infrastructure projects — water mains and sewer lines, electric generating stations, and roads — will come first to make way for Foxconn to build a 20 million-square-foot manufacturing campus. And that means about 20 years worth of work will be done in four years. Roads will widen, cornfields will give way to cement, your commute will grow longer, and the landscape will change.
A number of landlords are starting to upgrade their properties to prepare for an influx of temporary workers. I’m also hearing — and this is rather anecdotal so take this with a grain of salt — but folks from Illinois are moving to Racine County because of the jobs and affordable housing. This trend will likely ramp up as over 10,000 construction workers are needed to build Foxconn.And if I were a commuter, I would be planning for alternative routes now. But here is also what is happening. Having seen every single property transfer in this county for the past seven years, I can tell you that the real estate transactions — which normally slow down considerably by this time of year — have not. My real estate friends are selling a ton of houses, so many that the number of listings is sparse. And for sometime now it has been a seller’s market. With the City of Racine being named one of the most affordable places to buy a home, that will likely change.
A number of new housing subdivisions are already slated for Caledonia and Mount Pleasant, something we haven’t seen in about 10 years. This will likely create a ripple effect throughout the surrounding communities as they grapple with growth and demand for goods and services.
Employee-driven job market
Yes, the construction phase will be painful, but there will also be opportunities… for people with skills. And if there ever was a better time to go back to school — 4-year, 2-year or trades — now would be it.
For years I and officials from the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce have argued that we don’t have a job creation problem here, we have an employability problem. We have 15,000 people in Racine County that don’t have a GED. The good news is that the county has a number of training programs people can take advantage of. But we also need to put down those pot pipes and heroin needles and start looking at our potential in this community.
This is the difficult part because this is easier said than done. Our level of brokenness and inability to adapt to the job market has been pretty significant. The fact is… we don’t have the resources to address these widespread drug and mental health issues. I see the criminal complaints on a daily basis and the struggle is very real. I would also argue that this is the single most significant barrier to employment. And we need an all hands on deck approach to fixing it. Why? Manufacturers don’t hire people that are using drugs to run machinery, it’s too much of a liability. But I think there are a number of employers that want to tell themselves that we have a lazy people problem and leave the problem open for others to fix.
That’s not good enough.
For employers (myself included), now is the time to look at how to retain and attract talent. Wage compression, which is when employers need to pay more to get the talent they need, is already happening with the emergence of Amazon, Uline, Kennall Lighting, and UNFI. Foxconn — once operational — will exacerbate that problem.
I have heard many folks question the environmental impact of Foxconn on this area. I can tell you this… they will use 10 million gallons of water a day. To put that into perspective, eastern Racine County collectively uses 14 million gallons of water a day. And once used, it will likely have heavy metals in it. The good news is: Heavy metals are easy to take out of a water supply. The real issue, however, is that whenever you have cement and not greenfields, you create what is called an impervious surface.
That means we need to be asking really good questions about stormwater runoff or we will be buying a ton of sump pumps to fix our flooded basements. And if I lived near Foxconn but didn’t get a buyout, I would be attending every single water utility commission meeting to make sure those issues are being addressed.
But let’s not get all doom and gloom here
Once these changes have happened, there are real and tangible opportunities for growth in Racine County. But it’s not like we haven’t been through this process before. We will see new faces, cultures, schools, roads, jobs, and stuff to make. We will collaborate like we always do. We need to be welcoming and see the challenges for what they are… opportunities.
Will there be questions? Yes, but they don’t have to be roadblocks.